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Four decades later, man finds roots of Black ancestors in Orillia

Hobby for genealogy prompted research that eventually uncovered history of Josiah Payne Henderson, audience learns at OMAH Speaker Series

At the Orillia Museum of Art & History Speaker Series, Paul Barber recounted how his hobby of genealogy to research his family history led him right here to Orillia and his discovery of his Black ancestors, the Hendersons from Virginia. His talk: From Virginia to Canada: The Journey of My Black Ancestors, recounted that 40-year journey.

When Paul Barber first began researching his Orillia Henderson ancestors, he discovered that they arrived in Ontario from the United States in 1840. He traced the family back to Dr. James Henderson of Richmond, Virginia. It seemed likely, at that time, that James was Scottish, employed as a medical doctor, and possibly even a slave owner. But Paul faced a genealogical brick wall in trying to learn more about James.  

Thirty years later Paul took a DNA test and discovered that one percent of his genes were from the African slave coast. Paul then began looking for his connection to Black slaves in Virginia. New information revealed that all three of his earlier assumptions about Dr. Henderson were incorrect. 

As a “free man of colour” in Virginia, James Henderson had to buy at least two of his children before he could set them free. They were deprived of education in Virginia and James sent his daughter Frances out of state to attend school. Before she completed her education, the State of Virginia passed a law preventing Black educated people from returning home.  

Discrimination in Virginia compelled the family to leave the United States. In 1839, the Henderson family travelled north with a small group of other free Black people that included Frances’ fiancée, James Taylor. 

One of the group kept a diary of the voyage north to New York City, up the Hudson River, across the Erie Canal to Rochester and then to Toronto where James found employment as a barber. In 1840, Frances married James Taylor there. 

In 1845, Frances’ brother Josiah Payne Henderson arrived in Orillia, where he was employed at the old mission school. In 1847, James Taylor, a boot and shoemaker, arrived with his family and opened a shop on the north side of Mississaga Street, between Peter and Matchedash Streets. 

Josiah began working in James’ shop. In 1857, James opened a tannery on the waterfront near the foot of Mississauga Street. This may have been the first factory in Orillia.

Josiah became an active member of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and later served as a deacon and elder. He also served on the Public School Board, was elected as a North Ward town councillor, and unsuccessfully ran for the position of mayor of Orillia.  

Health issues prevented James from working in the shoe trade and by 1871 he was working as a bookkeeper.  He later worked in the Midland Railway freight office until 1882 and then became a Division Court Clerk. 

He and his wife, Elizabeth McKinlay, raised eight children in Orillia. Four of his sons became prominent lacrosse players and three of them raised their families in Simcoe County.

Join Paul Barber on his 40-year journey in search of his Black heritage by going to OMAH’ s YouTube channel to hear the recording of the talk. Here's the link.

Next up, Sylvie Browne will be guest speaker on March 15 on Zoom with her talk about the life and art of her grandmother Elizabeth Wyn Wood: renowned sculptor, art educator and Orillian. 

To register for this talk or any of the upcoming talks click here or call Monica at 705-326-2159 or email [email protected] 

Admission is free. Donations to OMAH are greatly appreciated.



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